Visionary of the twentieth century, Georgia O’Keeffe is characterized as a renowned abstractionist and an iconic landscape painter. Her work helped to advance American Modernism, and her transcendence of traditional realism named her an artistic revolutionary. Appreciation for O’Keeffe and her artwork stems from O’Keeffe’s ability to transform an organic impression into an artistic vision. Marveled by the natural world and inspired by her wonder of the earth, O’Keeffe is notoriously known for her sublime oil canvas representations of the New Mexico landscape.
O’Keeffe was one of the first to practice abstraction in a pure form, as seen in her early paintings of flowers. Similarly, she is recognized as one of the earliest artists to capture the essence of American modernity, primarily witnessed within her New York skyscrapers. In the summer of 1929, however, O’Keeffe arrived unannounced only to discover a new muse: the Ghost Ranch in the Chama River Valley. The polarity of New York City and Northern New Mexico left an awe-inspiring impression that O’Keeffe could only articulate through artistic expression, which is illustrated when she states, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”
The New Mexico landscape offered many natural configurations, which allowed O’Keeffe to experiment with shapes and exaggerated colors, giving life to these fixed entities. Another element of the New Mexico landscape that particularly appealed to O’Keeffe and is embodied across her artwork is a personal connection to the land. When she first explored the region, O’Keeffe was allured by the animal bones she would discover along the way; she states, “there were no more flowers so I started collecting bones.” O’Keeffe’s fascination for these carcasses is rooted in her overall impression: she did not view the bones as a symbol for death, but instead, these bones captured a rather lively quality seeing as they “outlive death.”
Evidently, O’Keeffe had a charming outlook on life, and her sense of optimism underlines her innovative approach to produce avant-garde impressions. As seen with the bones, there is an everlasting quality present in her Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills, sampled from her 1937 private collection. This remarkable canvas exemplifies O’Keeffe’s talented ability to work with lighting to her advantage. For example, the cedar tree is illuminated from the front, accentuating shapes on the base of the trunk so to create an image of early morning sunlight, yet the shadow cast from the west depicts the tree sunbathing in the early afternoon. This is no mistake; O’Keeffe’s eternal impression of the land lends itself to create a timeless quality as seen in Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills.
The New Mexico landscape, admired for its intricacy of protruding colors, complex proportions, and natural contours, is an organic creation admired by all those who wholeheartedly experience it. O’Keeffe immediately felt a strong personal connection to the land, eventually claiming the Ghost Ranch her home following her husband’s death. There was evident inspiration and soon discovered consolation present in the landscape, and O’Keeffe experienced this breath of life within each brush stroke. Paul Joe, famous Navajo painter, also feels a deep connection to the terrain, making sure to pay tribute to his native roots whenever he illustrates his appreciation for the natural world. His knowledge of tradition and incorporation of symbolic influence represent Paul Joe’s artistic expression as spiritual.
O’Keeffe, on the other hand, used aesthetic and imaginative elements so to heighten the abiding landscape and pay respect to her personal disposition. O’Keeffe was known to experiment with different tones, abstractions, and amorphous shapes so to suggest volume while correspondingly denying it. The vague distinction between two dimensional and three dimensional elements (due to interchanging dark and light hues) vitalized the essence of her paintings. Paul Joe also gives life to Navajo tradition on account of his artistic techniques and beliefs. Whereas O’Keeffe worked with oil based paints, Paul Joe used watercolor. Unlike oil paint, watercolor is a fluid medium that blends weightlessly, and the physical nature of watercolor considerably correlates to the metaphysical nature of the spirit; together, form and content effectively complement one another.
With that being said, Paul Joe’s artistic approach, although derived from different yet similar sources of inspiration, relates to O’Keeffe’s combination of elements to heighten the meaning and create a lasting impression. Due to their influential relationship with the landscape, both artists, Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Joe, acknowledge the earth’s natural beauty, and they manifest emulations of New Mexico with the intent to inspire.